Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mama's Life

Before Mama’s arrival in 1940, her mother had given birth to nine children. Her labors were always excruciating and long. The births took place in their small mud-brick countryside home during the days of China’s Anti-Japanese war. There was no medical support or assistance and by the time the babies were delivered, they were stillborn or simply too exhausted to survive.

Believing that they would never give birth to a baby of their own, Mama’s parents adopted one of the husband’s brother’s sons. This practice was common; a brother often gave one of his younger sons to a childless brother. Soon after this, the couple also adopted an unwanted baby girl. Their plan was for their adopted son to later marry the adopted daughter. Though it seems unnatural - even appalling - to us today, this was an acceptable feudal practice in China right up until the middle of the twentieth century. It was a way for the couple to ensure that they would be cared for in their old age.

Mama’s arrival a few years later took everyone by surprise. Her mother was past the age when women were considered fertile. When Mama was born, small but healthy, the couple was thrilled to have a child of their own.

Mama grew up with a sense that she was incredibly precious. She was also quite fragile, or, at least, treated as if she were. As a young girl, she suffered from a huge tape worm, but at that time, no one knew what it was. The doctors thought she suffered from too much heat in her body; no one had any medication to offer her so for years she lived with the chronic pain.

Normally, farmers’ children would help with the work as soon as they were able to. But this little girl was spared from chores by her parents. This seems understandable, given the grief her parents had suffered before she was born. Her mother doted upon her and though the family was poor, she felt loved.

However, sorrow was not far away. The Anti-Japanese war was spreading throughout the country. China was losing; Japanese soldiers would soon overrun their Southern province.

Mama has two strong memories of the Japanese occupation. The first is her own narrow escape from death. One afternoon, soldiers with bayonets approached her village. Most villagers fled, but Mama did not know of the danger because her house was a little way off from the village. Mama was in the kitchen with her mother who was lighting a fire for cooking when the soldiers entered. Finding them, the soldiers intended to set fire to the building and burn them alive. Mama’s desperate mother told the soldiers she had another daughter out in the village. Accompanied by a soldier, Mama and her mother were ordered to find her. Mama’s mother called a fictitious girl’s name, desperate that her own adopted child would not appear. After some time, the soldier grew tired of the search and sat down to wait. Mama and her mother ran for their lives. They knew the village shortcuts, its nooks and crannies, so they made their way to the village landlord’s impressive home. He and his family had already fled, so they found it deserted. For hours, they hid in his bedroom, terrified that they would be discovered. They survived as the soldiers, tired of searching, gave up and left.

Mama’s second memory is of a far more brutal experience. On another occasion, her father was laboring in the paddy field when Japanese soldiers returned. Whether out of boredom or due to orders from above, the soldiers captured and beat him before throwing his exhausted body into the village pond. After fishing him out, they burned him with incense sticks until he regained consciousness. Once conscious, they tortured him several more times: they’d question him, beat him, throw him in the pond, fish him out, revive him, ask another question…and so on, until he was absolutely exhausted. Somehow he managed to survive, but Mama thinks he never recovered from his ordeal.

After the defeat of the Japanese, power was returned to the guomindang, but the gongchandang, the Communists, sought it, too. Civil war broke out. All over China, people were nervous. Teachers, even in rural areas, knew that their traditional Confucian methodology was condemned by the gongchandang and, quite wisely, feared persecution if the gongchandang won. For Mama, civil war meant that she only attended primary school sporadically for a few short months.

When the gongchandang secured victory in 1949, Mama did not go back to school, but it did seem as if good luck had come to Mama’s family. Her father was appointed as the village leader for land reform and villagers felt jubilant because the days of landlord control were over. However, within just a very short time, tragedy happened. Mama’s father was dead. No one knows exactly what happened. After returning from a land reform meeting in a nearby village, he took a nap on a low bamboo bed. He suffered a massive stroke or a heart attack that afternoon.

More misfortune followed. A year later, her mother developed three tumors on her back. Medical help was unavailable so she soon passed away in excruciating pain.
Mama had become an orphan. She was 15 and both of her adopted siblings had married by then, though they hadn’t married each other. A few years back, her parents had decided that their adopted daughter should marry a cousin’s son. In return, the cousin’s son had agreed to help the aging couple with their farm. The girl’s feelings against the marriage ran deep. She attempted suicide, but in the end was forced to comply.

Although Mama was close to her sister, her sister now belonged to her own husband’s family and they were not willing to look after Mama. Mama’s sister was also heavily pregnant. Her adopted brother was struggling to make ends meet as a farmer and was also in no position to take her in. Instead, Mama went to live with her father’s eldest brother. She stayed there for a year, yet she knew that his wife deeply resented her.

At 16, Mama decided to leave. She joined a local amateur drama troupe. The men in the group earned their livings transporting goods during the day, but in the evenings the group rehearsed and sometimes performed. They took in Mama and although she was never good enough to perform, the group taught her to sing local operas and she helped behind the scenes. Mama appreciated their care immensely.

By the late 1950s, the troupe heard that work could be found at a newly created state fishery. The troupe members applied for jobs and Mama was assigned work as a cook. She considered herself very fortunate as this job guaranteed her a small but steady income, not to mention three meals a day. As time went by, the troupe rehearsed less and less. Some members married, others moved on, and friends at the fishery became Mama’s hope.

Not long after she began work at there, Mama met a man who was to become her brother-in-law. Baba’s eldest brother had joined the gongchandang and had been appointed as a Village Head. As such, he had the opportunity to visit the state fishery. There he came across Mama, whom he noticed because of her outgoing nature and her long, thick glossy braids. Mama, he decided, would be a good match for his younger brother, who was old enough to now be in need of a wife.

Just about all rural marriages in China were the result of introductions in the 1950s, and so it came to be that Mama, at the age of 18, was introduced to Baba. She was impressed that a Village Head sought her to be his brother’s wife and even though friends at the fishery warned her that the brother was rather simple minded, she did not dwell on it. Using a persuasive village woman as the go-between, Baba’s elder brother lured Mama into thinking that this would mean her husband would treat her well. He also promised that he could help find her a better position, possibly as a train conductor, if she agreed to the marriage. He also assured her that he would secure a better danwei for his younger brother, who was at that time a worker in a diesel engine factory in the city. The promises were never kept, but they were enough to convince Mama to agree to the marriage, which took place six months later.

Mama told me that Baba treated her well at first. He was well-known for his strength, so on their wedding day, he walked to her village with his wooden wheelbarrow, picked her up, placed her in it, and then pushed her all the way back to his home more than 10 kilometers away. Although they were not in love, indeed, they barely knew each other, such an effort seemed like a good omen. Mama believed she had made a good choice.

As China grew more and more impoverished in the early 1960s under Chairman Mao’s flawed economic policies, life became incredibly harsh. After becoming pregnant with her first child, Mama had given up her job at the fishery since her husband had work at the factory. She still hoped her brother-in-law would keep his promise to find her husband a better danwei, but his help failed to materialize. Then, to Mama’s dismay, her husband one day quit his job. It was just after the insanity of the Great Leap Forward. Baba's pay was a pittance, far less than even a poor farmer could earn, and he had had enough. This became their first major conflict as Mama felt he had thrown away their security. Suddenly, they were reliant upon eking out a living farming in Baba’s ancestral village. It was time for Mama to learn firsthand just how exhausting farming could be.

After returning to the village, Mama’s husband began to change. Perhaps the hardship was what changed him. Rice farming is back-breaking, labor-intensive work. Nothing can be left to chance. In addition, the family relied upon vegetable plots and tried to raise a few pigs. All of this was extremely time consuming and difficult. However, back in the village Baba would complete his communal chores, but left most of the remaining work to his wife. Mama would rise before dawn to fetch water, prepare breakfast and to wash clothes before the sun came up. She would also prepare the pigs’ food. Meanwhile, Baba began to drink more and would laze away in bed, often with a hangover. During the day, Mama faced endless chores. Besides her duties on the collective farm, she had to find time to take care of the needs of her growing family and complete her chores in the vegetable garden and with the pigs. Though she was often pregnant, Mama had no choice but to complete her chores; it was that, or allow her family to face even greater malnutrition than they already did.

Mama was exhausted and disappointed. This was not the life she had expected to lead when she had agreed to marry Baba. Conflicts became inevitable. Then, when Baba did find work at a nearby danwei which produced cooking oil, he refused to share his ration coupons with the family. He continued to smoke and drink heavily, ignoring the fact that his children’s bellies were swollen with hunger and their feet were bare. When Mama appealed to him to share his additional income or to help with the farming, he would explode in rage. Soon after joining the danwei, he also began to stay away from home and Mama suspected an affair. It would be the first of many.

Mama found her husband’s behavior hard to tolerate. She would criticize him for failing to care for the family and in return, the man she had married became more and more aggressive, unpredictable, and dangerous. A cycle of physical abuse began which was not to end until after the children had all left home. Towards his children, Baba was not often violent; simply selfish. They were frequently threatened and scolded, but were seldom beaten. For the most part, their father seemed to ignore their existence.

My husband clearly remembers his drunken father beating Mama during arguments over money or women, sometimes almost to death. His three elder sisters would huddle together and cry. He would clench his fists, wishing he were big enough to protect his mother from the terrible blows, big enough to fight his own father. Once, his valiant elder brother intervened, punching his father in the stomach during one of his brutal attacks on Mama. My husband swore to himself that when he grew up, he would not become like his father.

Several times, Mama petitioned the commune leaders for a divorce, only to be told she must stay with her abusive and adulterous husband for the sake of the children. She longed to leave with the children, but she had no parents to turn to and her adopted brother and sister had their own families to take care of. No one was in a position to take in Mama and her brood of children.

Feeling trapped, Mama grew depressed. She longed to escape, but knew that she could not abandon her children. As a child, she had seen her cousins suffer terribly the hands of a cruel stepmother. Unable to bear the thought of her children facing such a fate if she left, she endured the misery. At times, though, despair overpowered her. At one point, she threw herself into a nearby reservoir in an attempt to end her sorrow. She could not swim, but passing villagers rescued her. On another occasion, she experienced a severe bout of tuberculosis which coincided with another severe attack of tapeworm, this time in her liver. At the height of her illness, Mama’s husband decided to take a trip to a neighboring province to buy parts for his danwei’s oil press. He didn’t need to go; a coworker could have easily taken his place, but he preferred a trip to taking care of his wife. For several days after he abandoned her, Mama lay on her bed, refusing to take medication, hoping she could die in order to escape from her marriage.

In total, although her marriage became bitterly unhappy, Mama gave birth to seven children: four girls and three boys. Without access to contraception, Mama also found herself pregnant many times between these births. Like many exhausted rural women at that time, Mama chose painful abortions so that she would not have too many children to provide for. Not once did she go to hospital for an abortion; instead they were self-induced or, when that failed, performed by the village midwife who had no medical training or equipment.

Ultimately, Mama found strength to live for the sake of her children. She loved each one fiercely, both the boys and the girls. When a third daughter was born, Baba demanded that they give her away. A huge battle ensued. As tired as she was from the difficult labor, Mama refused, clutching the tiny girl close to her breast. Mama won that fight and the little girl remained a member of the family.

Mama fought other battles, too. After the Cultural Revolution ended, she urged her younger children to attend school. The elder three girls were needed at home to help with the farm work, but the others were all encouraged to attend. Sadly, only one – her middle son - completed primary school. Mama tried to force her eldest and youngest sons to attend, but they would repeatedly truant, preferring to run loose with other kids in the village. To punish her sons, she would beat them with a wooden stick, though to no avail.

My husband – the middle son - was fortunate to be born at the right time in China’s history. In the year that he reached school age, Mao died and the Cultural Revolution came to an end. He was also a curious child who wanted to learn, so Mama sent him to attend the reopened village school. At night, by oil lamp, he would read borrowed copies of China’s four classic stories, mesmerized in particular by The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

My husband was shortsighted, unable to see the chalkboard clearly, so he struggled in primary school. He needed to repeat a grade several times before they realized that that he needed a pair of glasses. When his mother understood his problem, she immediately arranged for him to get a pair of glasses, even though they could barely afford the expense on top of school fees.

By the time my husband graduated from primary school, he dreamed of one day going to university. However, his father had no confidence that a village boy could ever pass the difficult entrance examinations. There were too few universities and millions of students across China were trying to get into them each year. In Baba’s opinion, his son needed to give up school and start pulling his weight as a farmer. Mama, however, disagreed. Every summer, she borrowed money from her cousin to cover her son’s tuition fees, praying to Buddha that, against the odds, her son could succeed. Every year, her husband would curse her and accuse her of squandering money. He ridiculed her faith in Buddha, calling her backward and superstitious.

Their son failed his first attempt at the university entrance examinations. When this happened, Baba felt anger and shame. He also felt jubilant; he had been right all along. To him, his foolish wife had wasted so many years, so much money, and so many prayers on a lost cause. But Mama would not give up. Her son wanted to try again the next year. In order for him to transfer to a school in town where the quality of teaching was better, Mama borrowed even more money and prayed every day for his success.

Without Mama, my husband would never have become one of the few boys in his village to pass the national university entrance examinations. Without her, he would have never have had the chance to attend university and become a teacher. Without her, I would never have had the opportunity to meet her son. How can I not love this woman?

I remember the first time I met Mama. Her son, my boyfriend, took me to his village for Chinese New Year. I had only been in China for six months and still suffered from confusion and culture shock. I wasn’t ready for him to tell his family that we were involved, so he simply introduced me as his English teacher.

On the day we arrived, Mama was busy preparing the family’s New Year’s Day banquet. That evening, around twenty relatives gathered for an enormous meal. The men sat down to eat, while the women and children hovered in the background with their bowls, reaching between the men carefully with their chopsticks. I was invited to sit at the table with the men because I was a waiguoren.

During the week I stayed, I never once saw Mama take a break from household chores. Most of the time she could be found in or around the kitchen. She would be squatting down in the yard over a plastic red bowl, rinsing vegetables with ice-cold water which she had hauled from the well at dawn. Or furiously chopping meat on an old wooden board which had seen better days. Or feeding kindling into the fireplace to heat the immense iron wok. Or taking charge of the cooking, steam and smoke circling her, passing one after another spicy dish to her daughters to place upon the table.

The adobe kitchen was separate from the main house. It looked dank and claustrophobic. Its ceiling was low and there was little light, though it actually did not have a door, just a door frame. Mama and her daughters brushed past each other often, seemingly unaware of the tightness of the space. I was impressed and intimidated by their speed and their skill. Within a couple of hours, it seemed Mama and her daughters could produce dozens of dishes. I could tell that Mama was an expert.

Mama and I barely communicated on that first visit. It was not only because she was busy. My Chinese was so limited and Mama did not speak Mandarin. However, she constantly asked her son what she should prepare for me, the strange foreign vegetarian. She worried over what I could eat, as almost every dish she served contained meat.

That summer, I returned to the village, this time as her son’s girlfriend. Mama was still very busy, but in the evenings she would spend time with us. She asked her son many questions about me, but the one which has stayed with me forever was this one: Will she stay with you, son? She worried that I would not have the courage to marry him. I could feel her mistrust and the strength of her concern for her son. Even when we married, her fear for his happiness continued. Mama came to the train station to see us off when we set off for Beijing en route to our newly married life in England. She took off her only gold ring, pushed it onto his finger, and wept openly. To her, instead of gaining a daughter, she was, unthinkably, losing a son.

Around the time that my husband and I moved to England, his youngest sister married. That same year, his two brothers decided to build houses in the town and try their hands at small businesses. When these things happened, Mama no longer needed to farm as no one was depending upon her any more. She could also finally separate from Baba. I expect that the whole family breathed a sigh of relief. Baba went to live with his youngest son while Mama went to live with her eldest son. Deep down, she had no interest in life in the town and wished she could stay alone in the village. Her sons feared for her safety if she did, and insisted Mama move with them.

In fact, Mama and Baba would still live just meters from each other as the brothers’ houses were side by side. But Mama knew that this was it: in her mind, they were now divorced. From that day, Mama has never once initiated conversation with her husband. Though she sees him regularly, she chooses to ignore Baba. Once in a while, Baba will still have violent drunken outbursts. He will attack her verbally, sometimes even physically. Mama still lives in danger, but there is far less than before.

I think Mama’s last decade has been her happiest since childhood. The days of struggle and sorrow are behind her. Baba’s no longer a part of her life. Famines are over, she no longer needs to farm, and her offspring have all survived into adulthood. Her children are all settled, some are doing well, and she is surrounded by grandchildren, some of whom are already grown up. To her relief, none of her children rely upon the land for a living. Each year, although her frame is tiny, she puts on weight. We all know this is a good thing. Mama’s xinku days are over. She is finally qingsong.

Since leaving the village, Mama has had a lot of time to herself. Out of habit, she still wakes up early and has remained has remained industrious, often taking care of grandchildren or helping her daughters or son’s wives with their chores. She never takes a nap, but goes to bed early. Mama is also extremely frugal. She never ever plays majiang, dominoes or other gambling games. She hates to waste money on herself, although she will give generously to others. Like other countryside women her age, she smokes occasionally, but cannot eat guazi because many of her teeth are gone.

Mama has no hobby besides watching television. Fortunately for me, Mama’s television-watching has resulted in her learning to understand Mandarin. Simultaneously, I have also learned Mandarin and some of her dialect. Though our Mandarin is imperfect, Mama and I have learned to communicate.

Mama has lived with us on and off over the years. Ten years ago, she visited us in England for three months. She was 59, had never before left her hometown, and was unable to speak a word of English. She came only reassure herself that her son was safe and happy with me. Then, a few years ago, after we had moved back to China, Mama brought her grandson to live with us for half a year. The baby was her youngest son’s second son, but his existence, because of China’s one-child policy, was illegal. The family, fearful of the authorities, sent him with Grandma to live with us far from the hometown until they could figure out a solution. Over the past few years, since our children have been born, Mama has also spent several weeks a year with us, often in winter so that we can keep her warm and healthy. I know though, that although she loves us and appreciates our modern city life, there is nowhere she would rather be than back home in the countryside.

During Mama’s visit to England, she discovered that my grandmother lived alone in her own small home. Mama marveled at my grandmother’s privacy and freedom. Last year, my husband finally persuaded his brothers to build Mama a separate house behind theirs. She now has her own kitchen, bathroom, living room and bedroom. She has a table, two armchairs, a bed and a large wooden closet in which to store her clothes and blankets. She’s hung curtains and put up family photographs on her whitewashed walls. She has air conditioning, a refrigerator and a television. She cooks on a gas stove. She lacks a washing machine, but she doesn’t want one.

Though she now lives by herself, Mama is seldom alone. I think she loves her stand-alone home where her children, grandchildren and other visitors knock and take off their shoes before coming in to spend time with her.

July 2014

Mama is now in her mid seventies and, in addition to her seven children and twenty-plus grandchildren, she is now a great grandmother to several young children.  Although not always in good health - her kidneys often trouble her - Mama continues to spend most of her days living independently in her own small house behind elder brother's home in the town.  She has a few chickens and still likes to tend her small vegetable plot.  She gets up at dawn, if not before, every single day and likes to sleep soon after the sun sets.

A couple of years ago my husband and his brothers decided to demolish the unused village home in order to build modern homes on that same plot of family land.  The old house had stood empty for more than ten years and with village land being reclaimed by the government or sold to developers, they knew that their rights to the ancestral village might just disappear if they did nothing.  The idea was at first just to put up a structure, but slowly but surely, the brothers' yearning to have a home there once again grew and we now have a home in the village for whenever we have time to visit.

However, although we demolished the house which had been build in the early 1980s, we repaired the tiny, single-storey home in which Mama had given birth to all of her children in the 1960s and 70s.  It was a special part of the family's history and I think Mama especially loves to see it still standing opposite the gates of the large new homes.   Although the new homes have modern kitchens, Mama seems to prefer pumping water from the well outside the old home.  The family also prefer to cook in the kitchen of the old home, opting for the taste of food cooked in the giant iron wok over the wood burning stove.  These days, it's not usually Mama who cooks over there.  It's usually my sister-in-law, though Mama is never far away if a large dinner is being prepared - washing, chopping, refueling the fire - always busy and helpful.

Younger brother now frequently stays in his new village home at weekends and we've also been back a few times over the past few months.  Whenever we return, Mama moves in with us, happy to spend time in the village and eager to take care of us. When we leave, she sometimes likes to stay on for a few days, though the family, concerned for her safety, don't like for her to stay out there alone.  This year, for the first time in over fifteen years, there are pumpkins, watermelons and chili pepper plants growing in the village once again.  She is glad to be back in the village again even though so few faces from the past remain in the village.

The last time we were there three tiny, white-haired ladies tottered into our home to visit Mama.  Mama told me they'd known each other for more than half a century.  All three octogenarians were now widowed, each living alone in dilapidated old homes.  It was obvious that the friendship was treasured by Mama and I could feel her pleasure in once again have a reason to spend time back here.  In spite of the sorrows Baba brought her in the village, it was the place she had friends and, I imagine more importantly, the place where as a mother she was so needed, so vital. 

Last year about twenty family members - including most of my husband's siblings - found time to take a three-day trip to a famous mountain.  Though Mama and Baba still avoid talking to each other, they both agreed to come along.    It was the first time for us all to journey somewhere together like this.  It felt significant, no, it felt incredible to be hurtling along the highway together in a minibus, listening to but barely comprehending the banter between them.  Back when I first met my husband, when Mama and Baba were still rice farmers and no one in the family had two yuan to rub together, who ever would have imagined the family could ever enjoy such a trip?

Mama found the mountain climb difficult and so we arranged, in spite of her protests, for her to be carried up the steepest part in a bamboo sedan chair.  I took a photograph of Mama looking so beautiful and happy, shading her eyes from the sun while two strong strangers - one in front and the other behind - made it possible for her to reach the peak with us.  

Spending time with Mama brings nothing but joy and she is dearly, dearly loved.  Perhaps even by Baba, though he'll probably never express it. 


  1. Hello Blink Blink,

    I came to your blog via Jocelyn's Speaking of China blog. I was moved by your mother in law's struggle in life and happy that she now has peace and privacy. I have no time to read your other posts right now but I will be back soon. Hope you don't mind me leaving comments. By the way, how did you celebrate CNY?

  2. I'm glad you feel happy for her. Me, too. We didn't go back to the hometown this year. We celebrated with friends. My little boys stayed up as late as they could, which made them happy!

  3. What a lovely record of her life, so glad you finally got it written down. I get the feeling there is more to record about her life, don't leave it there.

  4. wow, your words simply came to life while i was reading it. Please, write a book about them! You are gifted :)